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Voices: What you learn from sixth-graders

Just in time for this week’s final Rockies game, literacy teacher Jessica Cuthbertson learns a valuable lesson from her students about something not tested on the state’s annual exams.

On the third Friday of this school year, I learned more than I taught.

Greeting my students at the door of Room 214 that morning, I took a deep breath and mentally whispered my daily affirmation: “Help me create and support lifelong readers, writers and thinkers.”

Then I launched into the day’s lesson.

A colleague had emailed our staff earlier in the week, offering a free batch of Colorado Rockies tickets for the Saturday night game. I snagged a handful, thinking my students could vote on the best reading response of the week and award the author with a pair of tickets.

I had already talked about the joys and rewards of learning. My students didn’t expect external rewards for doing their job as sixth-grade scholars, but the tickets did create an added element of enthusiasm and motivation.

In the back of my mind, I was thinking of Evan. Soft-spoken, attentive and compassionate, he is able to maintain both popularity and kindness in sixth-grade social circles. No easy task.

Motivating a young Rockies fan

Within minutes of meeting Evan, any stranger can identify his passion. Evan is a die-hard Colorado Rockies fan. He knows the players, he knows the game, he’s already carrying the 2013 schedule in his pocket, and on most days he can be seen wearing purple and black. He talks about the disappointing losses and the amazing catches and pitches with a light in his eyes that’s contagious.

Baseball is not something I care or think much about. But I can’t help but “talk baseball” with Evan, because I know that if I let him talk about the Rockies, he will happily engage in any literacy learning or curveball questions I throw at him.

So secretly, I was hoping Evan’s response would win. When the timer sounded and the work was reviewed, a pile of six remained for the class vote. Evan’s was not in the stack.

During the reading and vetting of the six contending responses, Evan sat on the edge of his seat. I think he knew he wasn’t going to win the tickets, but he was desperate to provide pointers about everything related to Coors Field and the team to the lucky recipient.

After calculating votes, I noted proudly that my students had selected the strongest response in the stack. Filled with textual evidence and grounded interpretations, the author had painstakingly and thoroughly answered the question. It was a worthy winner.

When goodness prevails

I brandished the pair of tickets and exclaimed, “Congratulations Josh, you’re going to the Rockies game!”

Josh grinned mischievously. Snatching the tickets from my hand, he held them high, crossed the length of the classroom, and announced proudly, “No … Evan’s going to the Rockies game!”

The room gasped and burst into applause. Shocked and speechless, Evan fought back tears of joy, confusion and gratitude. Josh returned to his seat, looking like he had just hit a home run. Which of course, he had.

For the rest of the school year and years to come, I will remember this moment – a spontaneous lesson of unbridled generosity. It isn’t standards-based and it won’t help students on the state assessment. But it is a lesson worth remembering and sharing. A lesson I hope they never forget.

Since that Friday, I’ve changed my daily affirmation. I still want my students to be lifelong readers, writers and thinkers. But more importantly, I want them to be better human beings as a result of the time they spend in Room 214.

Students’ names have been changed.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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